Acme Food & Beverage Company workers on strike held a rally in downtown Carrboro on Sunday to protest unfair labor practices at the restaurant.
Approximately 50 people attended the rally, which comes over one month after 19 workers went on strike in late November citing unlawful labor practices — including abuse of power and sexual misconduct by owner Kevin Callaghan.
Madison Burns, who has been a server at Acme since May and is a spokesperson for the workers on strike, said Acme staff informed management of claims of sexual harassment against Callaghan on Nov. 17.
Burns said the issues are long-standing. Many workers have felt uncomfortable when Callaghan was in the restaurant, which created a "toxic work environment," she said.
“Kevin knew the line to toe to make sure people weren’t going to come out about this,” Burns said.
'Intimidated and silenced'
Four days after speaking with management about the allegations, Burns said the most recent bar manager was "intimidated and threatened with her job" and forced to quit. Acme legal representative Bridget Blinn-Spears denied to comment on this issue.
Blinn-Spears said in an email to The Daily Tar Heel on Tuesday that after the workers raised their concerns, Acme took "immediate action and began internal discussions among management and staff."
Blinn-Spears also said Acme invited staff members to talk with management about their concerns in November. Burns said management made the workers feel "intimidated and silenced."
In their strike notice, the workers stated that Zoë Dehmer, Acme's director of operations and planning, “attempted to stifle our right as employees to make our grievance public.”
Burns said Dehmer has a conflict of interest in handling the restaurant’s human resources issues because she and Callaghan were involved in a romantic relationship.
“We were directed to her whenever we had any problems that you would typically go to a human resources official for,” Burns said. “Given her and Kevin’s history, no one really felt comfortable speaking out about Kevin to her.”
Dehmer denied the DTH's request for a direct comment. Blinn-Spears also denied to comment on specific employee matters.
"When the concerns were initially raised, Acme communicated to staff that there would be several members of the management team available to discuss any concerns and that an outside impartial firm would be conducting an HR audit," Blinn-Spears said in an email when asked about the strikers' concern about Dehmer.
Acme hired two law firms — the Noble Law Firm to conduct an independent HR audit and Nexsen Pruet to review their HR policies and provide advice for the future.
“The management team at Acme is taking the employee strike and their allegations seriously," Blinn-Spears said in an email to the DTH on Jan. 4. "An official response to the strike from Acme has been shared with the employees who are on strike, and we’re working toward resolution with an independent investigation that is currently under way. Our next steps will be informed by the results of that investigation.”
The Noble Law Firm HR investigation will be completed this week, Blinn-Spears said in an email.
The strike notice lists demands including an apology from Callaghan and upper management, an order that Callaghan not be allowed to return to Acme, the appointment of an official human resources officer and an effort to hire more racially and ethnically diverse staff.
Callaghan issued an apology to staff members on Nov. 26, the same day the strike was filed. That apology was sent in the form of a text to the workers' workplace messaging application.
“On Nov. 26, Kevin issued an apology to all staff members prior to the notification that several employees would strike," Blinn-Spears said. “In that same communication, Kevin told the staff that he was removing himself from involvement in service for the next few months while he sought to better understand the concerns raised.”
Burns said the workers do not accept the message that Callaghan sent to staff as an apology.
"Mr. Callaghan claims he somehow has already issued such an apology because he sent a text to workers over our workplace messaging application — where employees receive work instructions and directions — with hollow statements about his complicity with the same power dynamics that he has claimed to disavow his entire life a mere two hours before we were set to deliver the notice," Burns said in an email to the DTH on Wednesday.
On Dec. 29, the workers on strike filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board and informed management of this charge the next day. This means that NLRB will also conduct an investigation into the workers' claims.
NLRB Press Secretary Kayla Blado said the board is currently investigating the case, and in seven to 14 weeks, it will make a determination on whether its agents find merit to the workers’ allegations. After this, the case will continue through the NLRB’s process.
“That whole process is kind of long, it might take a few months,” Blado said. “But at any point in there, the parties could also settle.”
In Burns' interview with the DTH on Jan. 5, she said the strikers' legal representation had started negotiations with Acme's.
'Standing up for our workers'
Carrboro Town Council member Danny Nowell and Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam both spoke at the rally on Sunday.
“We want safety in the workplace,” Nowell said. “And if we don’t get it, we’re gonna shut it down.”
Allam also emphasized the right of every individual to be safe and protected at their workplace.
“We need to be standing up for our workers, especially in conditions like this where they are facing abuse — both sexual and emotional abuse,” Allam said. “It is something we need to be standing up for as community members and as elected officials.”
At the rally, Burns read multiple messages sent to the strikers' Instagram page from former Acme employees who had similar experiences with sexual misconduct while at Acme.
One of the messages she read was from a worker who was with Acme for more than 11 years.
"In that time Kevin would subsequently make sexually inappropriate comments to me and to other staff members," the worker said in their message. "From the top down, he was responsible for a workplace where sexual harassment was commonplace.”
Since the strike began, Acme has been open for takeout, but the dining room remains closed.
Blinn-Spears said the restaurant hopes to open for indoor dining as soon as possible, but they do not yet know a specific date.
As of Wednesday, the workers on strike have raised over $7,100 through their GoFundMe to help cover their expenses while the restaurant remains closed.
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